Congress

Intelligence Committee leaders set stage for contentious hearing on Trump impeachment

Schiff comes out in prosecutorial style, while Nunes blasts the process as a sham

William Taylor, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, are sworn in to the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Trump. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Lawmakers on Wednesday immediately staked out their territory in the opening minutes of the first public impeachment hearing into President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine, as witnesses described Kyiv's strategic importance and the threats it faces from Russia.

The opening hours of the hearing kicked off what will almost certainly be several adversarial weeks of testimony over whether the president abused his power by demanding a politically motivated investigation in exchange for U.S. military aid.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff opened the hearing laying out the facts in the impeachment inquiry much like a prosecutor at the opening of a trial. Unlike his widely panned comments at a public hearing in September, Schiff stuck to the script, detailing information learned during dozens of hours of closed-door depositions with current and former officials.

His Republican counterpart and fellow Californian, Devin Nunes, came out swinging, belittling the earlier depositions as “auditions” for the public stage, and congratulating the witnesses — Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and the Caucasus George Kent and William Taylor, the top American diplomat for Ukraine — for making the cut. 

[Who’s holding the impeachment hearings? Meet the House Intelligence Committee]

Both career diplomats, Kent and Taylor laid out in painstaking detail  much of what they told the committee during the earlier depositions. They largely bolstered Schiff's assertions in his opening statement, with both criticizing the shadow diplomacy to Ukraine conducted by Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.  

Schiff focused squarely on Giuliani’s involvement in U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

“Giuliani pressed Ukrainian authorities to investigate Burisma, the country’s largest natural gas producer, and the Bidens, since Vice President Joe Biden was seen as a strong potential challenger to Trump,” the California Democrat said in his opening statement.

The former vice president’s son, Hunter, was on the board of Burisma, earning around $600,000 per year. There have been no findings of wrongdoing by either Biden.

Schiff said Giuliani also promoted conspiracy theories that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 presidential election. He said the former New York City mayor undertook a “smear campaign” against former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch to remove her from office to facilitate Ukrainian investigations into the Bidens through unofficial diplomatic channels.Giuliani’s work, Schiff argued, paved the way for Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during which Trump asked Zelenskiy for “a favor.”

That favor, Schiff said, was Ukraine investigating the Bidens in exchange for a nearly $400 million military aid package. Taylor reiterated his earlier comments to administration officials that is was "crazy" to withhold the aid to Ukraine, acknowledging in response to a question later that he has never before seen military aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of a president.

Kent said in his written opening statement that “Giuliani’s efforts to gin up politically motivated investigations were now infecting U.S. engagement with Ukraine, leveraging President Zelenskyy’s desire for a White House meeting.”

Taylor said the push to have Zelenskiy commit publicly to investigate Burisma and Ukranian involvement in the 2016 U.S. elections, “showed how the official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr. Giuliani.”

Change in tone

Schiff’s statement was starkly different from the way he opened a hearing in September, when he gave what he later called a “parody” account of Trump’s phone call, at one point purposely misquoting the White House released account of the call. That portrayal became a Republican talking point to attack Schiff.

On Wednesday, it was Nunes’ who struck a mocking tone, blasting the hearing as a “televised, theatrical performance staged by the Democrats.” The entire impeachment inquiry, he said, was a “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” to the special counsel investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 elections.

Nunes called for the committee to allow witnesses to come forward who could shed light on whether House Democrats had any prior involvement with the White House whistleblower, whose complaint initially brought the July 25 call to the committee’s attention. Nunes also demanded to know if Hunter Biden’s seat on Burisma’s board affected U.S. government policy during the Obama administration, and whether Ukraine was involved in the 2016 election.

Nunes lamented that those questions would go unanswered as Schiff has blocked witnesses, including Hunter Biden and the anonymous whistleblower, Republicans have requested.

Nunes suggested Wednesday’s witnesses are merely pawns in what the California Republican has called a “sham” impeachment process.

“It seems you agreed, wittingly or unwittingly, to participate in the drama. But the main performance — the Russia hoax — has ended and you’ve been cast in the low-rent Ukrainian sequel.”

Before Taylor or Kent even began their testimony, Rep. Elise Stefanik led the Republican procedural resistance to the impeachment proceedings, asking when Republicans will hear if their requested witnesses will be scheduled to testify.

She pressed Schiff on if he will prevent GOP members from asking questions, citing closed-door hearings in which Schiff shut down questioning that he determined to be attempts to elicit identifying information about the whistleblower.

“We will not permit the outing of the whistleblower,” Schiff said.

He said that if a lawmaker’s line of questioning seeks to out the whistleblower, he does plan to intervene. But beyond that, he said all questions would be permitted.

“I'm disturbed to hear members of the committee who have in the past voiced strong support for whistleblower protections seek to undermine those protections by outing the whistleblower,” Schiff said.

[House Democrats have aggressive schedule of impeachment hearings before Thanksgiving]Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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